Notes on the Infancy Gospel of James: The Jubilee Factor and the Age of Jesus

I am still trying to make sense of this text and properly digest the material. But one thing did stick out to me when writing the post about the relation of the Herodian Temple and Mary.

We read in John 2:20

“The Jews then said, ‘It has taken fortysix years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?'” (RSV)

If we assume that this was a portrayal of a Jewish response in 30 CE, then the text tells us that the Jews thought that Herod had begun the construction of the Temple in 17 BCE, just as we have posited based on Josephus.

But the significance of the time reference is not limited to dates. John was a sophisticated writer, and he makes clear that the comparison in the passage is between the impressive Temple and the lowly Jesus. Jesus speaks of his own body being destroyed and raised, while the Jews think he is speaking of Herod’s Temple. They point out that such a destruction and rebuilding would be impossible, since the current Temple took 46 years to build.

When we take this information and compare it to the timeline in the Infancy Gospel of James, the result is striking. The Herodian Temple had been built for 46 years, while the Temple of Jesus (his body) had been built for around 35 years. His “Temple” was younger.

But if we consider that the body of Jesus didn’t begin with his conception, but rather with the miraculous conception of Mary, the picture changes. The body of Jesus was taken from Mary, and so it follows that his own “construction” started with her. When did it start? 21 BCE. This means that not only is the Temple of Jesus older than the Temple of Herod, but it was destroyed and rebuilt in the Jubilee year of the initial Temple construction (the birth of Mary). What started with Mary was completed by Jesus, in precisely the 50th year of the Temple’s existence. The significance of the Jubilee year primarily was that all debts were forgiven, and this was not practiced in Jesus’ day (nor had it been practiced since the First Temple still stood). The death and Resurrection of Jesus brought about the forgiveness of debts and the release of prisoners to death and sin.

It seems to me that this is what prompted John to emphasize the timeframe of the building of the Herodian Temple.

We can add one more layer to this issue: Irenaeus claimed that Jesus was about 50 years old when he died. If we look at Against Heresies Book 2, Chapter 22. The context is that Irenaeus is refuting the claims of gnostics that are based on numerical symbolism. Keep in mind that Irenaeus was thought to have known John, who also was interested in numerical symbolism.

Verses 1-2 speak of the speculations about the number 30 and the ministry of Jesus, and also references the “acceptable year of the Lord” read by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue. Verse 3 lists the three times that Jesus went to the Passover feast in Jerusalem, citing John 2:13, John 4:9, and John 4:50. All references are to John, which is striking.

Verses 4-6 will be reproduced in full:

4. Being thirty years old when He came to be baptized, and then possessing the full age of a Master, He came to Jerusalem, so that He might be properly acknowledged by all as a Master. For He did not seem one thing while He was another, as those affirm who describe Him as being man only in appearance; but what He was, that He also appeared to be.

Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself-all, I say, who through Him are born again to God –infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord.

So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.

5. They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that which is written, “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus], they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others. For how could He have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught, unless He had reached the age of a Master?

For when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed His thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it: “Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old,” when He came to receive baptism); and, [according to these men, ] He preached only one year reckoning from His baptism. On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.

Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?

6. But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham? “ Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age.

For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then wont much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham? “He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year.

For the period included between the thirtieth and the fiftieth year can never be regarded as one year, unless indeed, among their Aeons, there be so long years assigned to those who sit in their ranks with Bythus in the Pleroma; of which beings Homer the poet, too, has spoken, doubtless being inspired by the Mother of their [system of] error: “The gods sat round, while Jove presided o’er, And converse held upon the golden floor.”

(emphasis mine)

Here we see that Irenaeus bases his contention that Jesus was nearly 50 by the unwritten testimony of John and the Gospel of John. When we read of the 46 years years in John, one can’t help but put the figures together. But how can Irenaeus claim that the ministry of Jesus lasted around 15 years? He actually doesn’t claim this, but seems to imply it. There seems to be no satisfactory answer to this, and if Ireneaus had thought the ministry was in fact that long, it seems bizarre that he would not take the opportunity to say why. I conclude that his argument is primarily a refutation of gnostic number symbolism, not setting out the historical timeline of Jesus’ ministry. In other words, for him it is enough to refute gnostic claims, rather than assert positive claims about the ministry of Jesus.

Could it be that Ireneaus simply got an incomplete or incorrect interpretation of the 46 years idea? Could it be that the essential unity of Jesus and Mary which lasted for 50 years could have been inappropriately transferred to the idea that Jesus alone had lived for 46-50 years? I think this is most likely explanation.

46 was the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for Adam, and Augustine interpreted the number this way (Jesus as the New Adam). Jesus was, of course, also the New Temple. It is interesting that John here implies that the Temple had been finished (without actually saying so), while Rabbinic sources have the building of the Temple as taking 60 years, and Josephus has the building lasting both 8 years and around 80 years. All three sources have the Temple being finished in the reign of a King of the Jews (Herod, Jesus, Agrippa I, Agrippa II). In fact, there is no Jewish King after Herod that was not said to have finished building the Temple in Jerusalem.

We can conclude that Ireneaus’ contention is both ancient and confused. His sources are Johannine, but it appears that he misconstrued the evidence. It seems rather unlikely that Jesus ministered for over a decade, and if he did then it means that the dates of his Nativity and Resurrection must be abandoned. Instead I think Ireneaus made use of the imagery that  John and his disciples employed regarding Jesus’ body as being composed of the body of Mary, 50 years old when Jesus was crucified.


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